It all starts with what Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, told United employees in January. It ends, at least for now, with what several competing airlines have been doing in recent days.
On January 21, Kirby held a town hall with United employees, during which he told them that very soon, in his opinion, it was not going to be up to individual employees to decide whether or not they wanted to get it done. vaccinate against Covid-19:
“[F]or me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine – and I agree that it is controversial. I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and other companies, to require vaccines and make them mandatory. “
I have highlighted 22 key words from this statement. Remember, this was pretty early in our long national vaccine controversy. The FDA had only approved emergency clearance for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the month before, and there weren’t enough doses available for everyone who wanted or needed them.
It was also not clear what the future of air travel looked like, although most airline executives seemed to agree that widespread acceptance of vaccines was going to be the key to the recovery.
Regardless, Kirby was one of the few CEOs of large companies to seriously talk about employment mandates at the time. And of course, in August United announced that they would require all of their 67,000 U.S. employees to get vaccinated or else lose their jobs, more or less standing alone at that point.
In fact, CEOs of other rival airlines like Southwest and American Airlines have publicly stated that they have no such plans. But, just two months later, United’s rivals are starting to follow his lead.
American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue said last week that most employees who had not been vaccinated by Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, would lose their jobs. Then Southwest Airlines followed suit.
This basically leaves Delta Air Lines as the only obstacle, at least for now, with the exception of regional carriers.
Other major airlines have generally cited President Biden’s order requiring all government contractors to prescribe employee vaccinations, on the grounds that the airlines are themselves contractors.
It appears Southwest pilots are suing their airline over the warrant, and American employees have started to protest. (However, United says only 232 of its employees have refused to comply and risk being made redundant as a result.)
Now we all know that employer vaccination mandates are among the most controversial issues in America today. Frankly, that’s why I think Kirby deserves credit for being the first, even if it meant being alone.
This is also why, again, whatever type of business you run, I think it’s worth taking the time to look at how airlines are tackling big business challenges.
Find me another big commodities industry, with so many players listed on the stock exchange, where they all have to face similar issues under scrutiny at the same time.
Assuming you have to make tough decisions every now and then as a business owner, I see three big takeaways.
- The first concerns the emotional context. Almost every time I’ve seen Kirby talk about this issue, he places the vaccines in the context of the toll Covid has given to United employees – from his first remarks in January until he told the New York Times recently he made the tenure decision about half an hour after learning of the death of a 57-year-old United driver who had been diagnosed with the virus.
- Then, as Kirby took a bold stance, he waited for circumstances to allow him to move forward. Eight months have passed between when Kirby started talking about a tenure and when it actually happened at United. It was much more about laying the rhetorical foundations in advance.
- Finally, Kirby used his decision to try and lead others in the industry. Remember in those comments back in January, he made it clear that he doesn’t believe United can act alone. And while neither of us was in the room when it happened, August, when United instituted his tenure, Kirby was one of the nation’s CEOs who then met President Biden to discuss the matter.
A month later, Biden released the federal contractor requirement, and another month after that, many of Kirby’s big competitors announced a similar move.
Certainly, I’m not trying to convince you one way or another, whether companies should demand vaccination warrants. But when we finally together close the book on our long experience with Covid, and especially how industry responses have changed over time, I think Kirby’s moves here will deserve a mention.